Let’s say you’re a freshly appointed Chief of Operations at a company that you haven’t previously worked at. If you’re at all sensible about it, you don’t start your first week by imposing a new regimen. Instead, you want to get to know the company, its processes, and its staff. Only then can you decide whether you want to make changes and if so, how.
It’s not that you need to work at the company for years and years, necessarily. But you need to get your bearings. Same thing if you decide you want to learn to be a art conservationist, or do a somersault. These things need some practice and time to integrate. Sure, you might just go ahead and attempt to do it really well by imitating others who already know how. But you might also realise there are a few tricks to the trade that you’d be wise to learn, and which will aid your progress. You want to use, we might say “the COO approach”.
Some things, we can master by simple instruction, such as operating machinery or cooking by recipe. But for some things, we need the COO approach. We learn these things in a different way; so differently that it’s actually a bit confusing that we use the same verb — “learn” — for both kinds of activities.
“The COO approach” in inner work
In inner work and growth, we sometimes approach it as if it were a question of operating machinery. In the above analogy, it’s like we look to plain information to give us the know-how of handling a company, it’s staff, its customers and the day to day business. By the same token, people who just discovered the Enneagram might say things like, “I read the description of types Four and Six, and I relate to them both equally; can anyone help me narrow it down?”, or “How do I know whether I’m a Seven with an Eight wing or an Eight with a Seven wing?” And the best — if somewhat disappointing 😉 — answer to those questions is that you will know when you learn more. So learn more. Take it in, Let it live inside of you — not as dry information, but as true, embodied knowledge. Get a genuine feel for it.
So when it comes to the Enneagram, we need to be the newly appointed COO rather than the machine operator. We must realise it’s an organic process of sorts, that doesn’t really respond well to being rushed. If you are indeed new to this model — and sometimes even if you aren’t, but are still unsettled on your type — let it percolate.
Intended to percolate
The Enneagram didn’t come about as a quick-fix coaching tool for self-improvement. Or, in the words of Russ Hudson: “This material was not intended for casual viewing.” Yet with its new-found popularity, it happens that it is used that way. I’m sure (and know for a fact) that this can sometimes be very helpful. Still, that is not how it was intended. If it’s not immediately falling into place but we still see a fix-yourself-now tool, we’re likely to get frustrated.
This model can contribute to real growth and be of immense value. However, for it to do that, we need to get to know it. “Talk to the staff“, as it were; find out about product volumes and customer behaviour. In Enneagram terms, this corresponds to learning about the types, obviously. But it’s also about experiencing them, understanding their connections, similarities and dissimilarities to one another on the symbol. And, since the Enneagram is a complex system, this can take some time.
The ego’s take on inner growth vs actual inner growth
But if I’m asking about the difference between Fours and Sixes, someone might say, aren’t I in fact learning about the Enneagram types? Well. In a way, you are. But there is a significant difference between learning about the types (all of them) as their own entities and, learning about (some of) them trying to find a fit for yourself. The ego likes to define itself, preferably in fine detail, and then pass that off as inner work. But that’s neither “work” (especially if we expect others do define us) nor “inner” — not by a long shot. Rather, it’s a handy way to aviod actually going into any depth.
With the Ennegram, the process is twofold:
1) Learn about the model (i e, the types, their relationships, various groupings and the system as a whole), and
2) Learn about yourself, regardless of models or types. What are you like? How do you roll? In actuality — not just according to your self-image.
Learning about the Enneagram as a system
However we study the types, sure, we always have the filter of our own personality. Nothing else is possible. But studying them to get to know them offers a broad, open perspective; wanting to define ourselves does not.
Besides, let’s say you’ve acquired a surface-level take on the nine types. Then you find your own type (or at least, someone’s best guess as to what type that might be). Now what? What are you going to do with this knowledge? (This is not a dismissive, rhetorical question but a real one.) You don’t have any deeper context to view it in, anyway, so what good is it going to do? If we ask ourselves this, it’s quite clear that the answer is, not much. For this knowledge to actually help us, we need to understand the deeper aspects of both the model and ourselves.
So learn. Today’s landscape of pods and videos is great, so by all means, watch and listen. But also, read books. Yes, that takes time. And it takes time because it transmits huge amounts of insights, knowledge and education. In books, the information is generally well-structured and, for the context, complete. It’s not ”taken out of context”; it gives the context.
And the next thing is, meet people. Encountering the Enneagram types in the flesh is invaluable. Sure, some of the individuals you meet might have their type wrong (so it’s good if you’re in a situation where these things can be openly discussed and explained, such as a workshop), but statistically, you’re likely to get good “specimens” to integrate into your Enneagram knowledge.
Learning about yourself
Sometimes we forget that the benefits of knowing the Enneagram can only be as great as our own self-knowledge. A distorted self-image, and erroneously believing (and perhaps aggressively maintaining) that we’re a certain type, won’t offer much clarity. If you don’t have much previous experience in the world of inner work or self-discovery, you need that bit, too. Learning the difference between a Four and a Six won’t help, unless you also look into yourself at some depth.
So, how to do this? Wouldn’t coaches, therapists or other kinds of experts be a good way? Sure. Sometimes, bouncing things off someone else or getting helpful feedback and help to move forward is just what we need. But please remember there are two separate goals here: learning about the types and learning about yourself. “Finding my type” is not a goal — it’s an outcome of pursuing the two actual goals.
So be clear on what the coach, teacher of therapist is for. Is s/he helping you learn about the model, or about yourself? Of course, the same person can do both things. But if they offer neither, but still claim to be able to ascertain your type through an interview or test, I’d steer clear.
Plenty of ways to use a pencil
And of course, this is my preference; my view. However, you can look at a pencil and say, that’s for writing, and have most people would agree with you. Yet, in my teenage years, I frequently saw one stuck into my sister’s hair, keeping her blonde bun in place. And as recently as today, I used one to prop up a shower door for a minute when installing it in the bathroom. And I can probably think of ten other ways to use a pencil other than for writing.
Compared to a pencil, the Enneagram is extremely multi-faceted and complex. It’s easy to see that it, too, can be used in many different ways. For some, using it as a self-improvement coachning tool is their chosen way, and that’s fine. However, it’s sad to see one of them dismiss a fuller, far deeper-reaching way of working with the Enneagram as “navel-gazing” and “self-absorbed”. Inner work — with or without the Enneagram — might look self-absorbed to someone who does not practice it or understand it. Indeed, it might even be self-absorbed if the ego hijacks it for its cherished, never-ending self-definition. But those are not actual inner work, but ways to circumvent it.
So, if you found the Enneagram model — just now, or maybe a couple of years ago — and you’re seeing it has real merit and want to incorporate it in your life, let it take time. Let it find its way into your life. It does — and once there, it clarifies, illuminates and challenges in the best of ways 😊❤️️